Survivors of Fallen Share Memories, Understanding

May 26, 2012

When David Lloyd’s wife Ann, died, he hit a level of loneliness he says he never could have imagined. Today, he stood among some two thousand people who had been there.

As the Washington area marked the first day of a weekend teeming with public events commemorating the nation’s fallen service members, some 1,500 adults and 500 children filled the Crystal Gateway Marriott here in an effort to help themselves and each other deal with the grief of losing their very own military heroes.

A U.S. sailor rings the bell as the name of each person lost at the Pentagon is read during the Pentagon Memorial dedication ceremony Sept. 11, 2008. The national memorial consists of 184 inscribed memorial units honoring the 59 people aboard American Airlines Flight 77 and the 125 in the building who lost their lives Sept. 11, 2001.

The 18th Annual TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar & Good Grief Camp for Young Survivors offered four days of events to help the families of those who died while serving in the military cope with their grief. Sponsored by the nonprofit TAPS – Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors – the seminar includes numerous sessions for adults and children ranging from coping with suicide to helping siblings and children to understanding survivor benefits.

“As the surviving family and friends of members of the Armed Forces, we share a very special bond of service and sacrifice to our nation,” TAPS Founder and President Bonnie Carroll said. “We have in each other our most powerful resource for comfort and understanding. This is a safe place to spend time with others who have experienced a similar loss and understand the pain we all carry.”

David Lloyd and his wife, Ann, were soldiers with the 3rd Army Division at Fort McPherson, Georgia – David, a lieutenant colonel, and Ann a major. Ann was away at training, preparing to deploy, at Fort Gordon, Ga., in November 2006 when David got the call that soldiers there had found her dead in her room from a blood clot.

With their two daughters, Rhaynae and Nicole just five and 11 years old, respectively, and the family living off base with no relatives nearby, Lloyd quickly decided to retire. “I had a new job then” – as a full-time father, he said.

The family got by as best they could, returning to their routines, and some happy times, too, Lloyd said. But he was concerned that the girls weren’t dealing with their loss at the same time he was trying to figure out his own grief.

It all caught up with him one night shortly before retirement, Lloyd said. “I was very much alone in the office that night,” he said.

Lloyd picked up a magazine among the papers on his desk. “I couldn’t even tell you what the magazine was,” he said. “I just flipped it over and there was TAPS” advertised on the back cover. The ad included a hotline for grief counseling. He didn’t hesitate in picking up the phone. The TAPS volunteer spoke with him in exactly the way he needed, he said.

“When I called, it just opened up a new world to me,” he said. “Then I understood I was not alone. It was just one of those things, one of those defining moments,” he said.

Lloyd returned to the annual TAPS seminar for the fourth time this year, mostly for the girls, he said. “It’s therapeutic for them.”

Rhaynae, now 11, looks at it as going to camp and playing with other children who have lost parents, and Nicole, now 19, has come a long way in dealing with her grief, Lloyd said. It was only a year ago that Nicole asked what her mother had died from. “She just didn’t want to know,” he said.

“This place makes you see the kids in a different light,” Lloyd said. “You just know the hurt [they’re going through], then you see them laughing and you know this is a great thing.”

Other parents also voiced concern that their teens and young adult children also wouldn’t talk about their loss.

When Shelann Clapp’s husband, Army CW5 Douglas Clapp, was killed in a helicopter crash along with Army Brig. Gen. Charles B. Allen and five other soldiers near Fort Hood, Texas, in 2004, Clapp quickly sought support with TAPS and other groups, she said.

“It helped me that I was employed,” said Clapp, who works in education and is a doctoral student. “I just had to keep going. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the seminar about losing his wife and infant daughter, and how it made him understand how people can contemplate suicide. Clapp said his message resonated with her.

“I didn’t want to go on; I didn’t know how,” she said. “I was married to this man longer than I had lived without him.”

While Clapp worked through her grief, her then 18-year-old daughter, Jennifer, did not. “She kept telling me she didn’t want to talk about it. She was angry, but she couldn’t say why.”

The Claps marked a milestone today when Jennifer, now 27, attended the seminar for the first time with her mother. After just one day of TAPS, Jennifer said she was glad she attended.

“I never really dealt with it,” she said of losing her father, but being at the seminar forced her to think about it and realize she wasn’t alone. Jennifer said she felt better about her loss when she met a mother of three young children on a Metro train this morning. The woman’s husband, a service member, recently died.

“It really opens your eyes about what people are going through,” Jennifer said. “You think you’re the only one it’s happened to, then you meet others who have it just as bad.”

“We’re very much about survivors helping survivors,” said TAPS spokeswoman Ami Neiberger-Miller, whose brother was killed in action in Iraq in 2007. “We find people come, first for themselves, then they come for others,” she said of TAPS mentoring program.

Bob and Kitty Conant attended the seminar for the first time this year, and went through mentor training. They said they hope to help other grieving families by being TAPS mentors. “It’s about coming alongside them and listening and being there for them,” Kitty said.

The couple, from Valencia, Calif., said their religious faith has gotten them through the loss of their son, John, an Army sergeant, who died of an undiagnosed heart condition, miocardial arythmia, on April 10, 2008.

“He just had a duty station change and he’s serving the supreme commander now,” Kitty Conant said of her son’s death. “He just went before us.”

Conant, the second of four boys, three of whom serve in the military, had been in the Army 15 years and completed two deployments to Iraq and one to Haiti when he died suddenly. While his heart problems were unknown, he had been battling post-traumatic stress and seemed to have turned a corner in the months before his death. He had started calling again, having long conversations with his parents, and reconnecting with his brothers, one of whom he had started to bond with in their shared PTSD and combat experiences. John found out two days before his death that he had been cleared to return to Iraq, his parents said.

While John’s death was a shock, the Conants say they are content in knowing that he died doing what he loved. “He had wanted to be a soldier since he was a Cub Scout,” his mother said. “That was his dream.”

Ellen Andrews, TAPS Defense Department liaison, said participants find a bond that lasts years. “This is like a family reunion for us,” she said. “This is the group no one wants to belong to, but we’re so glad it’s here.”

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